After this week’s historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, I was remembering an earlier, not as friendly, time for a good friend. Imagine feeling that you have to masquerade as someone you’re not because people won’t like who you actually are.
Many years ago, in a conservative city in a blood-red state, I went on a gay date.
Before you get all hot and bothered, allow me to clarify: I went on a date with a gay man. Funny, smart, handsome, and athletic, Todd (not his real name) had purchased tickets to a benefit for a hospital where he volunteered, and he needed—or felt he needed—a beard. For the naïve among us, I’m not referring to facial hair, but to a beard in the sense that Urban Dictionary defines it: “Any opposite sex escort taken to an event in an effort to give a homosexual person the appearance of being out on a date with a person of the opposite sex.”
Todd saw to it that I didn’t open a door or pull out a chair all night. We sat at a table with other volunteers—a group of upper-middle-class women who appeared to be crazy about him. All of them were married and accompanied by their husbands. Conversation was cordial. But as pleasant as the evening was, and as lovely and charming as Todd was, I kept thinking about the fact that this kind, genial man believed he could not be himself.
This is not a debate about whether Todd should or shouldn’t have come out all those years ago or whether his silence made it harder for other gay people to come out. I’d have to walk a mile in his neatly polished shoes before I made that call. I don’t question his determination that he needed a beard, but I do question why he could not be himself. Would his fellow volunteers think less of him if they knew the truth? Would the conversation have been strained instead of relaxed? Would his showing up with a man instead of a woman have prompted gossip that he’d “flaunted” his homosexuality? Was Todd such a supreme gentleman that he felt obligated not to make other people uncomfortable with the truth?
Imagine feeling that you have to masquerade as someone you’re not because people won’t like who you actually are. Now imagine being right about that: Some people won’t like who you are. They will see you as less than. Specifically, they will see you as less than equal. Imagine not being able to be who you are—genuinely, authentically, all the time.
Whenever someone argues that “gay marriage” is wrong, I mentally substitute “interracial” for “gay”—although I suspect a lot of people who are opposed to gay marriage are not pleased by interracial marriage, either, and for essentially the same reason. Racists are racists because if by their attitudes they can make someone less than, then they can feel superior. Guess what? The people who would deny equal rights to gay men and women operate the same way. Are we such bullies that in order to feel better about ourselves, we must not only distinguish us from them—but also keep them, the mysterious other, under our thumbs by denying them equal rights? Whether you’re talking about an interracial couple or a gay couple, if they can’t marry, we have something they don’t have; ergo, we are superior.
I call bullshit. Gays are not different. They are not other. They are not less than. They are us, and we are them.
I liked Todd because of who he was, not because of who he was pretending to be. Compassionate, caring, kind—yes, he was all those things, and those were the parts of himself he was comfortable enough to show to the world. But he believed all of that would be irrelevant if the ladies-who-lunch knew he was gay.
And for the life of me, I can’t see why anyone cares. It isn’t important to me whether my friends are gay or straight—but it is important to me that they have the same rights as everyone else.
Susan Mihalic is a writer and editor based in Taos, New Mexico. She has taught writing and produced dozens of writing workshops. She specializes in New Adult fiction. Follow her on Facebook.com/susan.mihalic or on Twitter @susanmihalic.